Parent Advice

The college years are a time of change and development for both students and their parents. Predictably, both face the challenges of transition and the need to "let go" with a combination of excitement, discomfort, confusion, and fear. Some familiarity with what to expect can ease these challenges for all members of the family. "Letting go" does not mean ending the parent-child relationship; college students will continue to need firm parental support and guidance. Over time, however, parents will need to "let go" of certain old ways of relating to their son or daughter while negotiating new ways of relating in the future.


  • How will you keep in touch with your student?
  • What are your expectations?
  • Have you made these expectations explicit?
  • Do you anticipate changes in these expectations over time?

Parents serve as anchors to disperse news from home. Whether or not your student writes back regularly, e-mail from home is often read and reread. Students' own identities feel shaky in the constantly changing external and internal worlds in which they operate. Recognition and acceptance from home can restore a sense of continuity and self-worth. Further information regarding your student's emotional health can be found here.

You should remember that young adults often call parents when they are “down” and call friends when they are “up.” Therefore, parents may receive a skewed view of the psychological well-being of their student.

Your role in the relationship is changing, but the relationship is still one of lifelong connection. Establish a supportive, firm role of adviser.


  • What is your philosophy about learning? How do grades fit in?
  • Is it important to you that your student is excited about what she or he is learning?
  • How often do you find yourself mentioning your student's academic successes in casual conversations with friends?
  • How much is your student's success part of your identity?

Parents may be accustomed to saying, “Just do the best you can”—assuming that this will result in outstanding grades. Parents may not realize they have uncommonly high expectations about academic performance until their student hits an unexpected academic snag. Students also have very high expectations of themselves and are very tuned into parents' reaction to grades.

Northwestern fills its freshman class with students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. This means that 90 percent of the students are in the unfamiliar position of no longer being at the top of their class—and half of them will be in the bottom half. This can be a crisis for a student who has based his or her identity on academic performance.

Remember, most students change their minds about majors three or four times during their college career. Matching interests and abilities to reality is an arduous process. Talking about becoming a doctor since age 12 is not the same as becoming one!

Click here for further information regarding academic integrity and your student.


  • What have you communicated to your student about alcohol, drugs, and sexual conduct? Read our PDF for information pertaining to alcohol and drug use.
  • How will you handle it when you find evidence that experimentation in these areas is occurring?
  • What kind of example are you setting by the choices you have made?
  • How will you handle challenging discussions regarding your lifestyle and beliefs? How will you understand changes in your student over time? Do you have a conceptual understanding of cognitive and moral development?

When it comes to values, many parents think that their example speaks for itself and communicating honestly and directly about their own experiences and concerns is redundant. However, students do care about what their parents think. These discussions serve as a grounding to refer back to when faced with difficult choices at school.

It is important to regard these conversations as “teachable moments.” Staying calm and expressing concern may open a complex discussion where you can be a real resource. Viewing yourself as a mentor and a model at these moments will guide difficult discussions.


  • Have you been straightforward about financial realities?
  • Are you aware of sending mixed messages about money?
  • Do you have an estimation of true living expenses at Northwestern?
  • How do you feel about credit cards and bank accounts?

College-bound students enjoying newfound social and psychological independence may paradoxically experience an increase in financial dependence. Students accustomed to having a part-time job, access to a car at home, their own room, etc., may encounter a new and/or confusing financial dependency during the college years.

Although conscious of the need to give their students space to make choices and mistakes as autonomy is developed, parents often send mixed messages about finances. College represents a tremendous financial investment. In other areas of life, control of an investment of this magnitude would be considered crucial. Some parents are tempted to exert intrusive controls that actually impede developing autonomy.

A system that allows your son or daughter room for financial choices and responsibility is important. Consider the following steps:

  1. Keep track of your student's daily expenses for two months in order to analyze how money is spent.
  2. Establish one lump sum payment at the beginning of the semester so that your student gains experience in budgeting.
  3. Be explicit about what you will provide money for and what is expected to be provided by your son or daughter.
  4. Have your student open and maintain a checking account.
  5. Establish clear guidelines for the use of any credit cards.
  6. Never use money as a bribe or threat.